Resolution of cultural re-Discovery is an Endeavor best served by historical truth.

A lesson for our times.

I just finished reading Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. I've read a number of other volumes on the topic but this one takes a very different approach. This book is a travel log of the author's journey to follow in the footsteps of Captain James Cook, the justifiably legendary English explorer whose three 18th century journeys about the Pacific Ocean opened up the map of the world we know today. By all truly historical accounts, Cook was a deliberate, detail-oriented observer. He was an attentive, and enlightened man for the times and he repeatedly demonstrated an interest, concern and fear for the cultures he encountered. He was far from a perfect man, being a ship's captain of the 1700's and he payed the price for his well known temper on the shores of the Big Island of Hawaii, but his accomplishments are even daunting today and his amazingly detailed charts and maps were used until 1994 in some areas of the South Pacific!

Sadly, in almost every place Horwitz recently visited, Cook was reviled as an invader, a devil, a destroyer of cultures. Harsh judgment for a man in charge of successful first contact with numerous indigenous cultures throughout the whole of the Pacific. A man who went to great lengths to narrow the distance between cultures. One particular case in particular stands out in my mind. Along the Northern coast of America he encountered a hostile looking tribe in canoes who, after a few tense initial moments, began to beat their oars and spears against their canoes in a fashion that Cook found rhythmic and musical. In a real scene that predated Close Encounters of the Third Kind by over 200 years, Cook ordered his men to play music in response. The tribesmen were enthralled and responded in kind. This lead to a peaceful exchange, similar to dozens that both preceded and followed it. Hardly the actions of a maniac or destroyer.

Yet disenchanted militant nationalist groups across the Pacific, eager to restore the real and imagined glories of their original cultures, almost uniformly revile this man. It's too bad. The true record of the man and his achievements has become a casualty of the historical revisionism and pseudo-political correctness that often accompanies such efforts. I suppose it is no shock that much of the early mudslinging about Cook came from some of the true despoilers of these cultures, the missionaries who proceeded to civilize the poor savages and expunge most of their uniqueness and teaching them a proper modicum of guilt. They educated the islanders and natives but at the price of submitting themselves to the will and control of the respective churches. All was lovely in paradise until the ungrateful serpents arrived. No doubt island cultures were wrecked in the aftermath of Cook's voyages by those that followed and the diseases they carried. They would never be the same. That time was lost forever. But the same is true of Europe of the time as well. These countries too changed partially in response to the opening up of the world by men like Cook. Basic assumptions and perspectives were altered.

The reality of island life before Cook wasn't exactly as idyllic as some would choose to recall through historical rose colored glasses. Human sacrifice, internecine warfare, slavery, gender subjugation, rigid class structures, absolute monarchical power, absent laws, stagnant learning; all these existed for generations before Cook ever laid eyes on these places. I'm not trying to be critical of these fascinating cultures just pointing out the obvious facts that peaceful hula dancing and communing with nature wasn't the sum total of island life before their contact with the Europeans. It was no doubt inevitable that someone would come and Cook just happened to be Johnny on the spot in most of them. But he didn't just happen to be there but arrived as a result of magnificent navigation, leadership and courage - the same way the Polynesians did it before him. Nothing of the true hardships suffered by indigenous peoples is minimized by treating Cook with anything less than contempt. It just makes the process less honest and probably less permanent. Misrepresenting the history of Cook isn't a necessary step in regaining a grasp of one's cultural roots.

Too bad we have so much trouble separating our frustrations from historical truth. And we don't do anyone any favors by sweeping the truth under the rug or simplifing complex issues. We in this country aren't immune to this problem. That's why I felt compelled to relate this little story. Right now apologists are busy (hello Wall Street Journal!) trying to rewrite the history of the last 8 years before the ink has dried on the facts. Maybe they just can't stop lying, who knows. But whether we liked or loathed the course this nation has taken, it's best to not lose sight of the events as they happened. It's the only way to learn the proper lessons unless preventing that is their game. The only reason we can piece together a pretty good picture of the real James Cook is from what was written at the time. But the events of the last month of his life are obscured by the fact that his journal has no entries for that period. For a guy who was so prolific in his journals up to then, it strikes one as odd. Maybe some well meaning revisionist thought something in those pages was not complementary to the late commander's memory. We'll never know now. Maybe I am more of a mutant than even I imagine. For me, the fact that people who accomplish great things are less than perfect makes those accomplishments even more remarkable rather than diminished. Plus future generations can have a clearer view of the complexities of our present and maybe avoid the mistakes we've made. What it ultimately all means will be up to the historians long after we are dead anyway. We learn nothing when we are less than truthful with ourselves though that is the hardest thing in the world to do well.

PS - Hope you enjoyed my mega pun....


Asylum Seeker said...

"Maybe they just can't stop lying"

That's what I'm banking on.

pboyfloyd said...

My brother-in-law, Earl, used to wear a T-shirt which had a pic of Captain Cook in a caulron with the caption, "Cook, the captain!"

I imagine that reading stories of their adventures would be MUCH better than actually living them.

I liked that cartoon where a sailor with an eye patch, a hook for a hand and a peg-leg is applying for a job. The captain says, "Well, we'd like to hire you on, but you're just too accident prone!"

GearHedEd said...

A pirate walks int a bar. He has a large ship's wheel attatched to the front of his belt, and he's holding onto the pegs. The bartender sees this and asks, "What's the deal with that ship's wheel?"

Thepirate replies, "Arrrr! It drives me nuts!"

Harvey said...

"Those who do not know the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them".
If we allow the "truths" of history to be rewritten or obfuscated, we will certainly repeat all the mistakes and probably create some new ones.

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

No doubt it's hard for any of us to imagine what life was like for those men. Months at sea, disease, hunger, thirst punctuated by periods of peril. I doubt I could survive it.

George's quote is one of my guiding principles. Truth is very harsh sometimes but always better than any other option.